Ghosts in America

Ghosts, from what we learned in the play of the same name by Ibsen, are figures for public opinion. We also know that by adhering to public opinion characters often feel trapped by society and unable to find a way out. However, interestingly, this idea of ghosts also exist in the play Angels in America. More specifically characters are often restricted in many ways due to established public opinions or traditions, such as love, religion, and HIV.

In the first part of Tony Kushner’s play, Millennium Approaches, Prior’s boyfriend, Louis, abandons him when he discovers that Prior has AIDS. Prior has held off telling Louis about his illness for fear that Louis would leave him – and his fears turn out to be justified. So can we regard Louis as a heartless villain? His actions make us wonder, “What would I do in his situation”? Ghosts would rebuke Prior’s decision; they would insist that it is not right to leave the loved one in a hardship. But here, in the play, the audience does not strongly judge Louis for his choice. His character still manages to be sympathetic: the traits are drawn with such care and detail that we at least understand why he does what he does. Louis feels terribly guilty and wrestles with the decision a lot before leaving Prior: he consults a rabbi, cries in a bathroom, and, after he has left Prior, we see him constantly condemning himself. He fully realizes what a horrible thing he is doing. But still… he leaves.

One of the most trapped characters in the play is perhaps Joseph Porter Pitt. Being a Mormon and a homosexual, an almost oxymoronic relationship, Joe was torn between the choice of being a good Mormon or being liberated sexually. His struggle is deep, even more so than the characters in Ibsen’s play, as he cannot be liberated even by telling the truth. Take for example the phone call he had with Hannah, his mother, a Mormon. In the phone call he confessed plainly that he was a homosexual to his mother. However, what he met with was not acceptance, not even an acknowledgement, but rather a flat denial: “you’re being ridiculous”.  This is not the only time Joe’s sexual orientation was trying to be covered up or denied by Mormons. The morning after the phone call Joe also indirectly told Harper, his wife, that he is homosexual by expressing his lack of sexual interest in her. Again, instead of acceptance, Joe received nothing but a wife living in denial.

Just as in Ibsen’s Ghosts, there is obviously an infection that haunts the people of Angels in America: HIV. The stigma that comes with HIV was strong during the 1980s and is still prevalent today. Roy explicitly shows us what some of those stigmas are when during his doctor’s visit he says, “It afflicts mostly homosexuals and drug addicts” (49). Suddenly, being infected with a disease such as HIV becomes a societal blame game, a public pointing of fingers. Roy begins to taunt Dr. Henry, trying to get him to call him a homosexual. Roy’s obsession over the word, as well as his final self-diagnosis being liver cancer, emphasizes the strong ghost of HIV.

With some of these challenges of self-identity being faced by the characters of the play, the question of choices comes into play. How much “say” do they have upon their lives? These characters are given truths about themselves or those around them, truths that seems almost unspeakable in a societal context; and maybe in effect become unspeakable on the individual level. These attitudes will inevitably affect the actions and reactions of these characters, leaving us to wonder how much power the individual has over such situations.


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  1. I’m drawing a connection to some of the initial discussions we’ve had as a class on the deterministic (or non-deterministic) nature of the plague when discussing Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Perhaps the characters’ lack of free will is an indicator of the plague-like atmosphere of the plague, and how its perpetuated due to the constant denial of the plague (AIDS) by society as seen with the example of Joe’s wife and Joe’s mother. The ultimate powerlessness of the character stricken with the plague and their inability to come to terms with reality despite their desire to reveal the truth is telling of a deeper dimension to the plague itself.

    • The idea that characters are unable to come to term with reality is presented in almost all our current reading. Take for example in the Feast in Time of Plague by Pushkin there are group of revellers who try to deny the reality of plague by partying. The same idea is also revealed in Ibsen’s play, Ghost. What is more interesting about the plague (syphilis) in Ghost is that the characters are trying so hard to avoid the reality that the name of the plague was never stated explicitly.

      However there are also certain group of people that try to face the plague head on, instead of denying it. Take for example Dr. Bernard Rieux in The Plague by Camus, who faced the plague head on and try to minimize its casualty. Another example would be Prior who, though resigned to the disease, actually accepts it and face it head on.

      Cohn, on the other hand, feels like the intermediate between the deniers and the accepters. On one hand he denies having AIDS and proclaims that he only have liver cancer. However he also try actively face the disease by procuring the cure (AZT) for his disease.

  2. Your comment, Moonie, makes me want to take up the question of “reality” itself, especially in the context of the play’s metatheatricality (or its original designation as a “fantasia”). The angels’ wires are supposed to show, for instance. We’re supposed to remember this is theater. And yet the theater is magic, as Harper quips in one key scene. What does a concept like “reality” mean in the context of a play like this? And what does that have to do with agency?

  3. “…there are no ghosts here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics, the shifting downwards and outwards of political power to the people…” (pg. 98)

    This quote is taken out of Louis’ conversation with Belize towards the end of Millennium Approaches. There is some inherent tension in a lot of what Louis says, pointing to some of the bigger issues that I think the play is trying to hint at. A first question worth asking is: are there ghosts and angels in America? Louis seems to differ, but the action of the drama says differently. There are indeed ghosts and angels in America. However, how do we make sense of these characters and how does this interpretation relates to those of ghosts and angels in other books we’ve read so far (#Ibsen)? In my opinion, rather than being public opinion, as in Ibsen, ghosts in this play are markers of inheritance. Prior is member of a dynasty of (polluted) ghosts, and alongside with the angel, they play a role in terms of the revelation of him being a prophet (a prophet of what?). That leads us to the next question. Apparently, for Louis, America has erased many aspects of its past, and has only kept the political fable that is now a staging of lies and deceit. This alludes Moonie’s comment and our discussion about history and the fact of if a product of the agency of men or a crucial factor in the arrangement of human agency. For Louis, it seems (a selected few) Americans have decided on the history of the nation, but a history that does not reflect everybody’s experience.

    • I like your deep analysis of the quotation, Sebastian, and would like to add that Louis contends that because of the nation’s newness and its recent settlement (except for the Indians, as he admits), America is less racially polarized than Europe, more centered on political debate. But he is wrong, as Belize deftly proves and as the play re-confirms. In calling attention to this passage the play’s title refutes it—there is very much an Angel in America, one who is in fact the Angel of America. Politics is critically important, but it must be informed by history and identity. By deflating Louis’s secular claim, Kushner seems to be connecting his populist optimism with a sense of spirituality. The America the characters are striving for is as transcendent as it is democratic.

  4. In his comment, Sebastian mentioned prophecy, which is something that really stuck with me while reading Angels. The prophetic language almost becomes a leitmotiv of Prior’s dialogues, and leads to one of the climaxes of the play when the angel appears and delivers a prophecy (170).. I made countless notes asking what does this mean? What is the prophecy? The prophecy wants Prior to give up his life, for the eternal stillness and security of the heaven. However, Prior refuses this offer: “we can’t just stop. We’re not rocks – progress, migration, motion is … modernity” (264). In my opinion, the prophecy has an ironic twist. By rejecting the prophecy, Prior actually becomes a prophet. By preaching movement and life, he represents the can-be-done spirit of America. I think Kushner keeps the language about prophecy obscure to build up tension, which makes Prior’s rejection of the prophecy and his final lines, such as “world only spins forward” (280), more potent.

    • That is an awesome interpretation of how Prior becomes a prophet! I can totally agree with this. It makes me think back to the common religious context of what happens to prophets: they tend to carry a belief or idea that isn’t necessarily a popular one, butting heads with people around them. And like you said, Prior butts heads with the Angel by refusing to remain still. What’s also interesting about Prior’s prophethood is the fact that he is turning away from the divine revelation, which in a monotheistic religious contexts prophets are usually the ones who acknowledge and then submit to that divine revelation. Prior acknowledges the power of this Angel, but he comes to his own revelation.

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